Such disparities as these force us to reconsider the given-ness of language, make us think twice about what we’re reading and hearing, and put us in touch with a remarkable contemporary linguistic music. And there can be no question about it: Ashbery’s poems are exquisitely musical. In fact ever since I first heard John Ashbery reading his poems, his slightly campy, kooky voice has continued to sound for me through his poems. In the same way that Finnegans Wake starts to become that bit more comprehensible when read out loud (in a Dublin accent, if you can manage it) then even the most apparently ‘resistant’ of John Ashbery’s poems will begin to open up when you actually hear the words spoken. This is because the essence and complexity of his poetry is inextricably connected to its music; if you get one then the rest comes free.
Where Shall I Wander is characteristically slangy and homespun as well as frequently strange and delightfully bewildering. ‘I wanted to stretch the bond between language and communication, but not to sever it,’ he said in 1995, and Ashbery has remained true to that. The poems in this volume aren’t at all about taking a hammer to grammar and syntax, rather they are there to open up poetry to new areas of meaning. Sometimes, it’s as if he lets the language wander wherever it wants to, while the poet trots companionably along beside it.
I enjoy biographies and bibliographies,
and cultural studies. As for music, my tastes
run to Liszt’s Consolations, especially the flatter ones,
though I’ve never been consoled by them. Well, once maybe.
(from Novelty Love Trot)
There’s a quiet, almost muted register at times, and a feeling of ‘variations on a theme’ rather than any sort of grand exposition. This is especially true of the handful of prose poems in the book. It’s a difficult form for the reader, I think, especially when Ashbery’s familiar twists and turns of authorial voice combine with substantial un-paragraphed slabs of text. But, one of the (many) good and compelling things about Ashbery’s poetry is that it often takes a little familiarity before its connections to the reader (and the reader’s connections to it) start to make themselves known.
Thematically, much of the book seems to have a feeling of loss and impinging mortality. The very first poem ‘Ignorance of the Law is no Excuse’ begins
We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them were home.
And in another poem we learn that
… like all good things
life tends to go on too long
But the resolution (if that’s what you can call it, I think it might be truer to say ‘the place where the poems wind up’) is never gloomy, it’s often bravely matter-of-fact.
There’s no turning back the man says,
the one waiting to take the tickets at the top
of the gangplank. Still, in the past
we could always wait a little. Indeed,
we are waiting now. That’s what happens.
(from More Feedback)
To a certain extent, the reviews, essays, introductions and addresses and sundry other pieces of journalism that make up Selected Prose share this matter-of-factness. They stretch from 1957 to 2004 and deal mostly with literary topics, although there are a few notable art criticism pieces and a marvellously funny spoof interview between Ashbery and Kenneth Koch; all irresistible reading for the Ashbery enthusiast. There are also outstanding essays on Gertrude Stein and Raymond Roussel (the blurb calls them ‘contemporary classics’) as well as meditations on the work of Artaud and (the unconscionably neglected English poet) Nicholas Moore. The style is clear and journalistically competent, one might even say slightly conservative, and although not in any way buttoned-up, the variations in tonal register and linguistic high-jinx that are so evident in his poetry do not feature in Ashbery’s prose writings. That said, it’s no less fun to read, most of the time rejoicing in a quietly refined, amused and amusingly intelligent, almost avuncular tone. But the gentle pleasures of the prose aside, one of the main reasons why it’s so good to have this book is because it adds much to our understanding of John Ashbery’s understanding of poetry. This, for example, is from a tiny piece which appeared on the dust jacket of Lee Harwood’s 1968 collection The White Room: